For Labour, 2017 could prove that 2016 settled very little.
That seems an odd assertion, so soon after Jeremy Corbyn’s emphatic second leadership win. But another way of looking at his second win is this: all it did was confirm the problem.
Corbyn has a band of enthusiastic followers in the membership, and he is sustained by hard left union bosses. But he is not taken seriously by the majority of his MPs. And the voters have reached their verdict, and it’s damning.
The enthusiastic Corbynistas, wedded to their various causes, may be unruffled by the electoral evidence – but the MPs are very ruffled.
There have been three contested Parliamentary by-elections since Corbyn’s re-election. Labour’s average share of the vote in those contests was just 9.6%, and there was one lost deposit.
Corbyn defenders will retort that these contests were not in promising territory anyway. True. But even so, Labour lost around 40% of its 2015 supporters in these contests. And national polling says that is about the score everywhere; at best 65% of the party’s 2015 supporters are still with them. If that is still true on polling day 2020, the party’s national vote share would drop to around 18%. Armageddon. It makes the current poll rating of 25% look positively reassuring!
The truth about all this will hit home again in May this year.
Labour faces a hammering at the polls. Why?
England. All county council seats are up, together with many unitary authorities. These seats were last contested in 2013, when Ed Miliband’s Labour was doing well in the polls. Labour won the popular vote, albeit on a lowly 29% share. The Conservatives, polling 25%, lost out heavily to both Labour and to UKIP, the latter taking a 22% share.
On current polling, Labour faces huge losses this time around. The indicated swing to the Conservatives is at least 10%. Labour may also suffer losses to UKIP and to the resurgent Liberal Democrats. Seat losses will be in the multiple hundreds. At least one of the two counties under Labour control – Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – will switch to the Conservatives. The hit will be hard in the unitary authorities too. Maybe only Durham will be left standing when it’s all over.
Scotland. All council seats are up. They were last contested in 2012, when Labour was neck and neck with the SNP. Current polling suggests that Labour support has dropped from its 2012 level of 31% to 15%. SNP support has moved from 32% to 52%. Conservative support has moved from 13% to 21%. This suggests a net 35% swing from Labour to SNP in the forthcoming council elections.
Labour in Scotland faces the third meltdown, following on GE 2015 and the last round of Holyrood elections. Labour control across Scottish town halls will evaporate.
Are there any bright spots to compensate?
The same day sees a clutch of mayoral contests. Some are Labour defends, others, like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are coming up for the first time. Some of the defending city mayors may hang on, based on their personal record and their purely local messaging (as with Mayor Khan in London). The locally popular Andy Burnham could well clinch the Manchester job. But the West Midlands looks a much tougher challenge for Labour now.
Mr Burnham could be the poster boy for the morning after newspapers. However, watch the Leigh by-election if it’s held on the same day. UKIP fancy their chances of a big surge there.
But attempts to airbrush away electoral disaster with the telegenic face of Mr Burnham won’t work.
The truth is there will be political corpses all over the field, and many hundreds of defeated councillors with reason to opine on what caused their downfall.
Labour MPs in marginal seats may once again be emboldened to agree – in public. And so the party will be back where it started. Contesting its leader – in word, if not in deed.
Corbyn will probably not be under immediate threat. Especially if Len McCluskey secures re-election at the head of Unite in April. But if he falls, that, plus the May electoral rebuff, will leave Corbyn vulnerable once again.
The next wave of leadership candidates are already setting out their stalls.
For all the government’s travails, the coming year offers little if any respite for Labour.
Main image by paulnew – https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulnew/28243001503